Is George Washington Fit Only for Contempt?
Ask Frederick Douglass.
“George Washington University needs a new name” was the eye-catching headline on an opinion column published by The Washington Post last week. The 750-word essay was written by Caleb Francois, a GW senior majoring in international relations who isn’t happy with his alma mater. I read the column with particular interest: George Washington University is my alma mater. Francois indicts GW for its “systemic racism, institutional inequality, and white supremacy,” which he blames for such alleged shortcomings as the fact that the faculty is only 19 percent Black and that “no African languages are taught at GW.” Although a majority of GW’s students are nonwhite, Francois derides the admissions office for its failure “to ensure a student body with adequate minority representation.”
Can GW be redeemed? Francois suggests four ways to achieve progress: “decolonizing” the curriculum, admitting more Black students, hiring a Black president, and — the marquee proposal — changing the university’s name. Stripping all mention of George Washington from the university that Congress itself named in his honor “would cement the university’s dedication to racial justice.” Francois doesn’t say whether Washington’s name should also be stripped from the city where GW is located and the masthead of the prominent newspaper that featured his column.
You might expect a column calling for the cancellation of George Washington to offer a substantive critique of the man. But Francois mentions only one thing about him: that he was “an enslaver of men.” About Washington the indispensable hero of the American Revolution, about the towering leader without whom independence would have failed, about the only American so highly regarded that he was unanimously chosen to be the nation’s first president, about “the greatest man in the world,” as George III called him when he learned that the general who had defeated the mightiest military power on earth intended to return to private life — about that Washington, the column says nothing.
Calls to strip Washington’s name and image from the public square because he kept human beings in bondage have proliferated in recent years. Not all those calls have been peaceful. In one notorious incident, a statue of Washington was toppled by rioters in Portland, Ore., who wrapped its head in an American flag that they set on fire.
Is Washington’s complicity in slavery the only detail of his life that 21st-century Americans should care about? Does nothing he accomplished matter more? If so, then no school should bear his name and no statue should honor his memory, or that of any of the Founding Fathers who enslaved Africans. But not even the most passionate foes of slavery doubted that men like Washington — despite that terrible blot on their records — were entitled to esteem and gratitude.
In his Post column, Francois recommends renaming GW for the renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass, to honor “his work for social reform and equal justice.” Yet Douglass himself was not blind to the imperfections or the greatness of Washington and the other Founders.
On multiple occasions, Washington spoke of his philosophical opposition to slavery. He wrote in 1786 “that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.” In his will he left instructions for the eventual emancipation of everyone enslaved by him and for those who had grown old or ill to be supported by his estate in perpetuity. That doesn’t erase Washington’s culpability in what he knew was an odious practice, but it earned Douglass’s admiration. In his tremendous 1852 oration, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass reminded his audience that “Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves.” More significantly, Douglass extolled the heroism of Washington and the other Founders:
“They were statesmen, patriots and heroes,” he said. “For the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.” Like all of us, Washington and his peers were diminished by hypocrisy and moral flaws. Yet “with them, justice, liberty, and humanity were final — not slavery and oppression,” Douglass emphasized. “You may well cherish the memory of such men.”
Washington’s enslavement of other people was a grievous failing, the worst thing he did on this earth. But only someone blinded by ideology would contend that it nullifies everything about Washington’s legacy that was so extraordinarily positive. Without him there would have been no Revolution, no United States, no new nation conceived in liberty, no growing pressure on America to live up to the ideal that all men are created equal.
“Rename George Washington University” may be a catchy battle cry. But whatever ails my alma mater will not be healed by repudiating its namesake.
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